Second Reading: Queen of Shadows (Throne of Glass #4)

Original Queen of Shadows Review

The Throne of Glass series has been one of my favorites since I started this blog. When I hit a wall with new reading over the summer, I decided to return to the series in order to re-read up to the final book, Kingdom of Ash, which I still haven’t read.

The first three books still held up. I devoured them and remembered why I loved this series so much. The characters were clearly defined, their motivations fairly well communicated, and you’re just waiting for the giant, terrible forces to be revealed so Celaena, Chaol, and Dorian can rip them apart. Even the reveal of the witch clans in book 3 was exciting and a welcome addition to the universe and the tension.

In book 4 Celaena/Aelin is returning to Rifthold to recover the Amulet of Orynth from her former assassin master and discover what has happened while she was in Wendlyn training and gaining entrance to Doranelle, where her aunt, the Fae Queen Maeve lived, so she could interrogate her about the Wyrdgates and Wyrdkeys. Almost immediately this book takes a hard left turn and never really recovers.

You can read my original review to get a sense of where my confusion lies with this part of the story, but the general gist is that the characters went from mature people who worked together and understood each other’s actions even when they were less than savory as long as they advanced the goal – to a bunch of whiny babies who stick out their tongues and stomp their feet when they don’t get their ways.

Chaol talks to Celaena like she chose to go to Wendlyn and train with a Fae prince. Did he forget that he sent her there? Did he forget that she had magic and was part Fae and needed guidance for that power so it wasn’t out of control? He sent her there because he couldn’t stand to lose the woman that he loved. He blames her for being away when Dorian got taken. He blames her for the increase in shadow soldier movements. He is mad that she ‘made such a show’ of her power in Wendlyn that it caused the king to increase his creepy plans. She wasn’t gone that long, and yet he has ZERO feelings for her at the start of this book.

But he’s not alone in this. Celaena knows how the black collars work, she fought things like it in Wendlyn. So why is she screaming at Chaol about how he left Dorian there alone? Didn’t she just finish training with the Fae to learn tactics and skills? She’s been an assassin for like 8 years, she knows the value in living to fight another day. Even the simplest mind can understand that if Chaol had stayed instead of escaping, he would be dead now and Dorian would have been well and truly alone with no one to say what happened to him and to recruit people to try to free him.

The childish bullshit between the two of them makes absolutely no sense when combined with the first 3 books. It makes no sense when you consider that all of them know that their problems are bigger than all of them and that they need to bring all their knowledge together to face them. All the maturity is gone, the drive and intensity towards a common goal is gone, and to be honest, it almost feels like Maas was trying to fresh-start her series in this book and I do not like it.

To further confuse the matter are a cadre of additional characters that we don’t need, but apparently we do because Maas is setting us up for all the LOVE STORIES we have to have moving forward. Also we have to learn about the “territorial Fae bullshit” because now her cousin Aedion is with them, and her Fae trainer Rowan comes to town too, and they decide to posture over her like two animals fighting over who gets to mate with the female.

I was curious about something, and so I looked up a couple of the books in her other series, A Court of Thorns and Roses, which is exclusively about the Fae, how a human comes to be a part of that world, and is basically a trilogy of YA softcore porn. I was wondering how working on that series might have affected Throne of Glass, and whether they were coming about at the same time.

In fact, both Queen of Shadows and A Court of Thorns and Roses were published in 2015. Empire of Storms and A Court of Mist and Fury were published in 2016, and Tower of Dawn and A Court of Wings and Ruin were done in 2017.

Seeing “Fae bullshit” leaking into the Throne of Glass series is not surprising when you see this timeline. Queen of Shadows is also when Maas begins to make the books longer, with more exposition and repetitiveness: We see Celaena/Aelin referred to as “my queen/queen” in almost every paragraph, and once Rowan shows up we start to see the “male/female” animalistic language starting too. The softcore nature of ACOTAR begins to leak into ToG too, with all the Rowan/Aelin teasing in the second half of the book. All you are forced to focus on is how hard they want to do each other instead of their planning to free Dorian and find the Wyrdkeys.

The ACOTAR series was a feminist, romance trilogy (whose third book is an absolute disaster and an embarrassment to the first two books), so you would expect a lot of sex, relationships, and overdramatic actions. Throne of Glass was supposed to be a sweeping fantasy series – good versus evil, a queen regaining her kingdom through any means necessary and beating back an ancient force threatening to conquer all worlds. That’s what I signed up for, and I can see how in Queen of Shadows it took a turn away from that in favor of the Fae sexiness, and it isn’t a good look.

Something happened to Sarah J. Maas in 2015 (or before, I know how long it takes to write a book) that changed her style of writing and her focus. I’m sure if I cared more I could research it and find out what it was, but this obsession with Fae culture, with the sexual relationships in that culture, with the idea of eternally bonded mates and immature friendships, sticking out tongues and the stomping of feet, the petulance…I don’t know but something changed and it wasn’t for the better.

On to the next one.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Bird by Bird

When you’re trying to begin writing seriously, either in long form or short, you may find yourself looking at craft books – books that teach you the technical approaches to writing in your desired format. You will also come across empathetic books that show craft with emotion, a kind of peek into the realities of writer life. Two books show up on every list of suggestions: On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

The titular story is how her brother had a report to write about birds and procrastinated until the night before to write it. He threw up his hands to give up when their father told him to take it one bird at a time, to write the paper bird by bird. And so should we write our novels, our stories.

I didn’t devour this book like I did On Writing. It may have been the religiosity interwoven with the advice that turned me off, or perhaps the fact that the focus seemed to be on shorter pieces and non-fiction as opposed to longer works. But I finished it and took several tips away that I plan to come back to.

Write Letters: I have encountered this suggestion several times now, to write a letter in the voice of a character. Have them tell a story about their life outside of the story you are writing in an effort to unearth something about them that should be used to enhance their presence in the story you are trying to write.

Write 300 Words Every Day: Everyone says to do this and I really need to find a way to work this into my daily routine. I’m thinking I’ll try to do it right before bed after I brush my teeth.

Write Things NOT Related To Your Current Project: I am a very task-oriented person. Efficiency is the name of my game and I don’t like to waste time or resources. But the act of writing improves future efforts, and everything I write doesn’t have to be my novel, and writing about other things might inspire something I would want to include.

Find A Writing Group/Close Reader Friends: This is the first time I’ve seen sending a book out to agents too early as “burning bridges” but it makes sense. Once I get through a couple more drafts I will need to try to find people to collaborate with so I can learn how to critique a work in progress and receive feedback on my own work.

Write Out of Vengeance, Nicely: There are many aspects of my writing that are too close to home, too easily recognized. Something writer-helpers talk about as writing about myself as the heroine instead of creating a character who is the heroine. I get that and am slowly wringing that tendency out of my writing each time I sit down. But I have stories. Stories I want to tell through fiction. Stories I think that other people will be able to relate to. Lamott tells us to change all the details about these stories except the most important points, and then give the guy a tiny penis so he’ll never come forward to complain even if he sees himself in your story. Avoid that libel, advice I haven’t seen much elsewhere but is easy to hear and apply to your work.

Publishing Does Not Equal Insta-Fame: I know this, my friends have told me this, I read about this all the time, but every time I hear it I’m glad to hear it, if only to temper my expectations.

The book did its job and I feel motivated to continue writing. You’ll want to add it to your queue as well if writing is something you like/want to do.

What’s Up, Buttercup?

Hello lovelies. I am well aware that it has been awhile.

In early July I was caught by the video game fever and spent almost the entire month (1) catching up on Destiny 2: Forsaken and (2) falling irreparably behind on my Goodreads challenge goal. I’m pretty sure there were like two weeks in there when I didn’t read at all, and honestly is was a nice break.

Then I started rereading the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. I’m on book 3 now (Heir of Fire) and working my way through to Kingdom of Ash, which I still haven’t read. Once I’m done with that I’m going to reread Nevernight so that I can read Godsgrave followed immediately by the signed copy of Darkdawn which is on its way to me from the U.K. Waterstones store.

Also waiting for me on my shelf is The Priory of the Orange Tree, that massive tome that makes me feel guilty every time I bypass it for something else. I have an entire shelf for books I haven’t read yet, and I’ve managed to prevent myself from taking more books out of the library to make time to read those books instead. Right now I have so little time that I can’t really deal with library due dates anyway.

My book is 25% into its second draft and really starting to take shape. I’m finding the new Save the Cat! Writes a Novel very helpful in structuring the different acts of my story. It was also validating to find that I was already doing most of it anyway just by virtue of having read so much and gotten a feel for the flow of a story.

If you’ve been following the news you know that we avoided Hurricane Dorian, but we’re watching a few others on the horizon. We’re better prepared this time with a generator, a battery powered radio, more savings, and a store of foodstuffs, so the clusterf&%k that happened in 2017 hopefully won’t happen again.

I should have a few review posts up as I get to the new (“new”) books in my reading schedule, but with the school year on again they’ll be up when they’re up. Thanks for reading!

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice

As we move into more highly technological times, discussions are often centered around the dangers of robots or AI becoming self-aware and sentient, and then turning on humanity to become Matrix-like overlords. Ancillary Justice presents us with an alternate argument: what if an AI became its own person and was capable of love, compassion, and revenge – a force for good.

I wish that descriptions of this book had leaned more heavily on the fact that it is really a love story, a love rooted in loyalty and friendship. The ship Justice of Toren has ancillaries: humans that have been repurposed as hosts for the consciousness of the AI that runs the ship. Each level of the ship has ancillaries and they identify as that. The main character of this story is Justice of Toren One Esk, and worked directly with the captain of the ship. When the supreme leader of the empire commands it to shoot this captain, it must obey, but it also splinters into separate pieces, with One Esk escaping the explosion of its home ship to roam space, planning revenge on the leader who is herself a collection of ancillaries.

This book is so different from what I usually read, but it had that central theme that I am really drawn to: revenge. Especially revenge for wrongs done to loved ones. There is not a surer way to get your hooks in me to pull me through the book. The only downside to reading was that sometimes the story got confusing, especially when I was trying to keep track of who was who. The central idea is that the supreme leader is fighting a civil war with herself, and her ancillaries are all split and fighting each other. One Esk balances this out with the realization that she has a choice, that even though she is an AI that knows how to take orders and must follow the orders of the supreme leader, she doesn’t have to follow those orders blindly and with great effort could refuse to follow those orders if she wished.

You will watch this grow from a story about love and revenge to a story that explores what it means to be human and who qualifies for personhood. Beautifully told in a new and exciting universe from a perspective that is usually feared. It’s a great read and you should try it. Go get you some.

The Bird King

The Bird King

The Bird King came across my library holds list after I perused some of the best of 2019 lists. It was billed as a great fantasy read, and you all know I’m always down for those. I finished this book, the first finish in a little bit, and I am really sad to say that I was a little underwhelmed by the story. It moved quickly, it was easy to follow, and the ending was moving, but as a complete package it wasn’t anything to write home about.

It’s difficult for me to write about how the story even works without giving a ton of stuff away. It’s set in 1491 on the Iberian peninsula, and Fatima is the last Circassian concubine to the sultan there. Her best friend Hassan is gay as well as a magical map maker – he can make doors appear to places just by drawing a map. When the Holy Order (read: Spanish Inquisition) comes a-knocking Hassan and Fatima must run for their lives or be tortured, killed, or in Hassan’s case, used for the Order’s purposes.

The best part of the story is the first third leading up to their escape. G. Willow Wilson paints a beautiful picture of Fatima and Hassan’s friendship as well as her relationships within the harem and with the sultan. She is just beginning to see that she could hold real power and is waiting to see if she becomes pregnant with the sultan’s child when everything falls apart.

Their escape and subsequent journey to Qaf  where the King of the Birds resides is a bit of a mess storytelling-wise. The villain isn’t scary, Hassan’s powers are not clearly defined and how he uses them is not made clear, and without giving too much away, how they find the island and defend it seemed rushed and strange.

The ending was moving enough for me to ask you to read it, but don’t be shocked when you feel like giving up around page 300 (if you’re reading the hardcover). I pulled a rare “I made it this far, I might as well finish” and made it to the end, and I’m glad I did. It’s a nice story. If you have a gap in your reading schedule, pick it up and enjoy.

The Record Keeper

The Record Keeper by Agnes Gomillion was provided to me as an advanced reader copy by Titan Books in return for an honest review and a spot on a blog tour. The Record Keeper is on sale now and is available in both paperback and ebook formats.

Read the synopsis for The Record Keeper here.

In the past three years of reading and reviewing books in earnest I have learned to recognize when books are available for me to read and yet not written for me in the sense that there is minimal content with which I might relate. Some reviewers make the mistake of writing a book like this off, claiming it was boring or not compelling, missing the fact that not everything is for everyone. There is a significant difference between a poorly written book and a book that is not about you. While I did have trouble connecting to this story (especially as it was touted as based on the life of Frederick Douglass, who I only know a small amount about thanks to history courses) it is undeniable that its premise, and the style in its telling, are laudable.

The Record Keeper is written in a way that will cause you to hear, taste, smell, and feel what is going on in the story. Gomillion writes so evocatively that at times it felt like the book was singing to me. At no moment was I bored and the amazing writing style matched up well with a story that did not stop moving forward…

…until about the last 25%. Suddenly the story had to stop to give all the information that we needed to understand what was going on. Because the story is told primarily from one point of view, and that character’s point of view is limited to always following the rules and trying to do what’s right in order to maintain her status, we miss out on a lot of the things that might be brewing in the underbelly of this strange society. A story that was chugging along nicely came to a screeching halt, and made for an ending that was less than exciting.

I am glad that this book gives a SFF viewpoint of the intra-black relationships and struggles that exist due to white oppression. Right from the start a society has been set up where some black people are meant to take care of and ‘rule over’ others. This speaks to many different concerns in the black community, from light vs. dark skin (colorism) to issues of hair, education and assimilation into white culture in an effort to rise above – we see a clear break between black communities in this post-WWIII world. I’ve read too many books that only deal with white and black relations, when it’s important to see the effects of those white oppressive techniques on the black community when the white instigators are taken out of the picture.

A story mechanic that I really enjoy with any character who thinks they know it all is the slow cracking of a shell. The main character Arika thinks she has everything under control, but then she witnesses one thing that contradicts what she’s been told, which leads to other ideas being questioned, until her entire shell comes crashing down and the truth of her situation is that she never had any control, in fact her belief that she had control was what the people in control were using to keep her under their thumbs. The moment Arika sees how the workers are treated, how sick they are becoming, with no help in sight, the novel takes a turn down a darker path where we know she will need to look at herself in the mirror and decide how she will reconstruct her worldview around these new truths that have come to light.

If I had to ask for anything, it would be that I wished for more world building. We’re in the eastern United States and that’s pretty much all we get. Other SFF series use this same idea – nuclear war or other such conflicts constrict society to certain areas where they vie for resources and rebuild society in some primitive way in which one group of people obviously come out on the better end of the deal. It’s a tale as old as time in the current SFF genre, especially in YA literature. A little more worldbuilding here may have set this book apart from The Hunger Games trilogy, or Marie Lu’s Legend trilogy, or Lauren Oliver’s Delirium trilogy. I hope this will come in the future novels in the series, due out in 2020.

Overall I feel like this book is one to add to your TBR, but more importantly I think it’s one that English or History teachers might consider adding to their curricula. 8th graders and up could benefit from a side by side analysis of the story Gomillion is telling and actual historical events. The Record Keeper would be perfect as a class set for any classroom that is willing to dig into societal issues using excellent writing as a foundation for discussion. Either way, definitely give it a try!

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Double-U Double-U Review

If you caught my summer preview post you probably picked up that one of my downtime goals is to lose some weight, not to be skinny or pretty or anything, but to be more comfortable traveling and sight-seeing. I decided to take advantage of a deal and try Weight Watchers, which is for some reason calling themselves “WW” in an attempt to rebrand themselves as a lifestyle as opposed to a weight loss plan. I’m not joking, I had to call into customer service about an app problem, and the agent said “thank you for calling double-u double-u” like I didn’t know I was calling fucking WEIGHT WATCHERS, but that’s only part of the story.

I’ve been using the plan for about a month and a half, and while I have been able to lose about 5 pounds, I’ve discovered some issues that might be something you would want to know about if you were considering some help in this kind of endeavor.

The basic idea of WW is the same as it’s always been: you get a set of daily points based on your gender, current weight, age, and a few other attributes. In addition to these points that reset daily, you get a set of weekly points that give you a little wiggle room on the daily or help with eating out or splurging that would take you way beyond your daily allotment. If you exercise you can also earn FitPoints, which you can choose to use to bolster your balance, or avoid using altogether to help boost your weight loss.

These were in place when I used the program in 2006 to lose almost 50 pounds. What was nice then was that it was relatively easy to gauge how many points an item was worth. The general rule of thumb was that 50 calories roughly worth 1 point, with higher fiber or protein values bringing the point value down, while higher fat values increased the average. Plus there were guidelines about what you should eat: dairy, servings of fruits and veggies, a basic amount of water, and you could check these off and work them into your day.

I have watched the plans slowly change over the years. First everything you ate had a point value that you had to track. Then fruits and veggies became zero points, and how your daily points were calculated changed. Then what a point meant changed, requiring the purchase of a point calculator or you could use the app/website. And then Oprah came on the scene, talking about how much she loved bread and cauliflower pizza dough and the plan changed yet again to include about 200 zero point foods, expanded to include fruits, veggies, seafood, boneless skinless chicken breast, 99% fat free ground turkey/chicken, and eggs.

At first I was kind of excited by the large number of things I could eat that I didn’t necessarily have to track. But something about it nagged at the back of my mind – how could we just call these things zero points when they have nutritional value and calorie content? So I started using the plan and discovered a few things very quickly.

First, this plan bases point values on saturated fat, sugar, and protein. Calories aren’t even used, nor is fiber. At first this made sense to me given the current research on sugar consumption and trans/saturated fats. What didn’t make sense to me was how 230 calories of M&Ms could equal 12 points, 30% of my daily allotment. I know none of this is an exact science but gosh that’s…that’s aggressive. The commercials love to say that it’s such a flexible plan, you can eat anything! Which I guess is true, you COULD eat M&Ms, but the point structure sure as shit is gonna scare you away from doing that.

Which leads me to my second point: ALL IS EGGS. Holy shit, every WW recipe, community recommendation, whatever uses 9782347263847239 eggs. I am convinced that anything you could ever do with eggs has been discovered by current WW members trying to stretch their points as far as they can go. And the pictures of these recipes – god it looks like an eggplant shat out a terrible skillet scrambler in the most terrible nightmare diner. “Look at this amazing meal, and so tasty!” Bullshit Carol.

And third. You think Facebook or Instagram is a nightmare? Well then come on over to the “Connect” section of the WW app or website. WOW. If it isn’t people posting side by sides with the after picture filtered so hard that Barbies (holy unrealistic skinny waist batman) and anime characters (HUGE EYES WOW) would be jealous, it’s men paying to use the app to pick up chicks or EVERYONE IS CHRISTIAN AND PRAYING FOR EACH OTHER PRAISE JEEBUS. I have seen more juuuuuust almost naked pictures of people than I ever saw anywhere else, especially dudes leaving their junk just out of view. It’s a festering pit of everything weight loss/lifestyle changing shouldn’t be, but exists in WW.

So this week I started using the free app MyFitnessPal alongside WW to see how they compare. The thing I like about MFP is that you can set different nutritional goals. Does your doctor think you need more protein? You can set that daily value and track towards it. Need to lower your sodium intake for blood pressure or other reasons? You can set that limit too. It takes the weird point calculation system, simplifies it, and makes it very individualized. And it tracks with Fitbit, which is a plus for me.

My reasoning for losing this weight is not to get super skinny, but to be in better shape and be more comfortable in a plane seat. I said at the beginning that I wasn’t going to compromise my happiness or foods I enjoy to reach this goal, I was going to exercise more to help bridge the gap and just eat smaller portions. Only a month and a half on WW made me feel like I was in an egg cult that was slowly brainwashing me away from bread and cheese. That’s not the goal here. So I think I’m going to call it on the WW experiment and stick just to MFP. I shouldn’t have to pay $13 a month for something I can get for free that’s more about what my body needs.

Don’t get me wrong, Weight Watchers used to work for me. I felt like I could eat what I wanted and I learned how to balance things I needed to eat with things I wanted to eat. I honestly don’t think the program is that kind of positive force anymore. If I were you, I would find a doctor you trust, a nutritionist that’s more about health than skinny, and an app you don’t have to pay to use before you try to become baptized by the egg masters. Skip WW, it’s not worth it.